Depending on when you were born, there’s a good chance you’ve spent either several decades online or have never known an offline world. Whatever the case, the internet and its advertising giants know a huge amount about your life.
Amazon, Facebook, and Google all have reams of data about you—including your likes and dislikes, health information and social connections—but they’re not the only ones. Countless murky data brokers that you’ve never heard of collect huge quantities of information about you and sell it on. This data is then used by other companies you’ve likely never heard of to nudge you into buying more stuff. On top of that, all your ancient web forum comments and ill-advised social media posts are still out there, waiting to turn you into a milkshake duck.
At this stage it’s going to be very difficult to completely delete yourself from the internet, but there are some steps you can take to remove a lot of it. Removing personal information and deleting accounts is a fiddly process, so it’s better to break it down into a few smaller steps and tackle them over time.
Opt Out From Data Brokers
Collecting and selling your data is big business. In 2019 the US state of Vermont passed a law requiring all companies buying and selling third-party personal information to register: In response, more than 120 firms logged their details. They included companies building search tools to look up individuals, firms handling location data, and those specializing in your health data. These companies collect everything from your name, address, and date of birth to your social security number, buying habits, and where you went to school and for how long.
Among the biggest data brokers are Acxiom, Equifax (yes, that one), Experian, Oracle, and Epsilon. Some, but not all, data brokers let people opt out of having their personal information processed—this also depends on where you are in the world—but the process isn’t straightforward. You’ll often have to contact them via email, fill in online forms, and provide extra identification information.
The US-based nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse has created a database of data brokers that contains their email addresses, links to their privacy policies, and info about whether they let you opt out. There are 231 US companies on the list, which gives you an idea of how big the data brokerage industry is.
If you’re covered by Europe’s GDPR or California’s Consumer Privacy Act, you can also send requests for your data to be deleted. Privacy-focused group YourDigitalRights has created opt-out forms for 10 of the biggest data brokers to speed up the process of getting your information deleted. It’s probably best to start opting out of the biggest companies first.
Get Google Search Results Updated
You can’t change the way that Google displays its search results, but there are some limited steps you can take to make sure that what’s displayed is up to date and to remove harmful details, such as doxing attempts. If a web page has been updated by its owner but it isn’t reflected in Google’s search results, you can use its tool to remove outdated content. Google will update its search results for pages that no longer exist or are significantly different to the versions it has indexed previously.
Google will also consider requests to remove harmful content. If there are non-consensual explicit images; fake pornography; financial, medical, or national ID data; doxing; or images of children on websites then you can ask for them to be removed. To do so, you’ll have to submit a form and provide evidence of the content.